The Healing Power of a Story

UPDATE (9/12/11): Visit NPR’s powerful story on dignity therapy “For The Dying, A Chance To Rewrite Life”

Memories have the powerful ability to transport us to a different place and time, to stir up visceral and intense feelings. Think, for example, of your first kiss, your favorite vacation, or your biggest regret.

The autobiography has become a rite of passage for celebrities, politicians, and socialites, but who’s to say others wouldn’t benefit from reflecting on their life experiences? Personal historians have long supported and witnessed the positive effects of sharing tales from one’s life. Now, scientific research is shedding new light on the advantages of storytelling and reminiscence.

In the last few years, dignity therapy studies have shown that not only patients, but also family members benefit from this intervention. A recent study published in Lancet Oncology examined the effects of dignity therapy—a brief form of psychotherapy—versus two types of standard care on several hundred terminally ill cancer patients. In the study, patients who received dignity therapy attended three meetings with a therapist in which they explored themes including what mattered most to them, what they wanted to be remembered for, and what wishes and lessons they wanted to leave for loved ones. After the therapy sessions, the patients were given an edited transcript of their sessions, which they could share with anyone they wished.

The study revealed that patients who received dignity therapy were more likely than the patients who received the other care protocols to report that:

  • the intervention was helpful
  • it improved their quality of life
  • it increased their sense of dignity
  • it changed how their family saw or appreciated them
  • it was helpful to their family.

These positive effects extend beyond the elderly grandmother or grandfather, to the younger generation (and perhaps to future generations as well). In a 2007 study of family members who received transcribed dignity therapy sessions from their loved ones, 78% said that the document helped them during their time of grief and 77% reported that the written document would continue to be a source of comfort for their families and themselves.

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Burdened by illness, a sharp decline in activity, and an increased feeling of helplessness, our loved ones forget the value and dignity of their lives. But through the two-step process of examining and recording, even the most “ordinary” individuals will recall how extraordinary their lives have actually been.

Tell us how storytelling has impacted your family. Have you noticed an improvement in health or quality of life? We look forward to hearing your reactions to these studies!